lack of good salad isn’t the average university student’s biggest concern. But when South African Rushil Ramjee and Swede Houman Ashrafzadeh moved to London and met on a graduate course at City University in 2008, they “couldn’t stop talking about how there was no great lunch anywhere”.
“We got really bored with stodgy sandwiches everywhere in London that made us feel more tired,” Ramjee explains. “The flavours were missing!” Ashrafzadeh adds. “If you wanted something healthy, it was boring.”
After graduation, Ashrafzadeh moved back to Stockholm to work as a management consultant, while Ramjee worked in asset management for Jupiter in London — but they kept coming back to salad.
“We saw new exciting salad bars pop up in other parts of the world — especially Scandinavia, New York and Los Angeles — and thought it strange that the healthy fast-food scene was undeveloped in London,” says Ashrafzadeh. Together with another friend, Yannis Divas, the trio spent three years from 2016 pondering their idea for Urban Greens, a swish salad bar.
They opened their first in 2019. Today a three-strong chain of Urban Greens, where the menu including “Seoul chicken with marinated glass noodles, kimchi, shredded kale, coriander, pepper and cashews” and “sweet beets with black rice, sweet potato houmous, lime pickled beets and buckwheat” brings in £4 million a year.
It started as a side hustle. Ashrafzadeh and Drivas, both 38 and Ramjee, 36, were living in different European cities “and we all had demanding corporate careers”.
They laugh about “jumping off client meetings in our respective jobs and going into meeting rooms to take a call to broker the best price of broccoli or how we would smoke our salmon.”
The three entrepreneurs would come to the capital for intensive planning sessions: “This was before Zoom [was big], so we flew into London for weekend workshops, slowly completing our branding pack, the design of the store, and recipes.”
They hired a chef as a consultant and spent weekends hosting tasting sessions with friends at various Airbnbs around the capital.
“We developed a menu which was different from anything else available— pickled vegetables, creamy toppings such as beetroot houmus and dressings that were as far as possible from the typical ‘olive oil and balsamic’ that you could find at other salad bars.”
The threesome didn’t quit their day jobs until July 2019, when their first site, in St James’s Park, opened — it’s still their busiest branch, selling almost 1000 salads a day. “That’s a lot of kale,” Ramjee laughs.
The trio put in almost £500,000 of their collective savings to open Urban Greens; they are yet to take on external funding. “We always wanted to grow the business substantially before taking on a strategic partner, and when we do, we’re looking for experience, not just money.”
Months after opening, Covid struck — but the salad business actually flourished. “During Covid when people got tired of cooking and baking banana bread they opted for more healthy options. Developing our brand [for delivery] allowed us to survive.”
The firm did “hundreds of orders” a day during the pandemic, “then when life went back to normal very slowly, customer retention stayed very high: if a customer tries us, they are likely to return”. Today 50% of sales stem from delivery — “as the food is cold, our remit for delivery is much further out.”
Inflation has been troublesome, with the salads already costing £10 to £11. “The worst moments,” says Ramjee, “were when demand started picking up after Covid at the same time as we faced staff shortages, and high inflation — it felt like battling with one challenge after another and they kept getting worse.” They survived, though, and Urban Greens opened a second brand, in Canary Wharf in 2021, then a third in the City last month.
Turnover now stands at £4 million, but the trio are targeting £10 million within the next two years — planning as many as 15 branches around the capital, before overseas growth.
“Given our international backgrounds, expanding to different countries is something we think about. Our friends who live abroad all put their cities in the ring for the first overseas Urban Greens.”
Headquarters: “we float between the different stores”